There’s a complaint that’s constantly being lobbed at Activision of late (and to a lesser extent at Harmonix and MTV Games though they seem to have built up a reservoir of goodwill) that the Guitar Hero and Rock Band brands are being run into the ground by those who care nothing for the rhythm genre beyond the bags of guaranteed money that the games will bring in. Activision seems particularly capable of pushing the product rather than the game, especially given some of the poorly chosen licensed products that have appeared since Activision took the reins of the Guitar Hero name. Of course, the glut of games that have come out in the time since Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock was released hasn’t helped either. In less than two years, five Guitar Hero games have been released for the major consoles and three for the Nintendo DS. Whether you’re a fan of the series or not, that’s a lot of Guitar Hero, even if you’re pretending Rock Band and its own set of spinoffs and expansion packs don’t exist.
Still in a way, there’s an argument to be made for something like Guitar Hero: Smash Hits. For one, there’s a rather large contingent of players who have never played the first Guitar Hero, particularly those introduced to the series via the Wii, Xbox 360, or PlayStation 3. Wii and PS3 owners might never have even had the shot to try Guitar Hero II, which only showed up on the 360 because it came out a year before either of the other two consoles. Despite simply being a compilation of previously-released Guitar Hero tracks, there’s also the added content of vocals and drums for each of these songs because really why should we be forever denied the pleasure of singing “Free Bird” just because it debuted in Guitar Hero II?
As is to be expected, the tracklist is very, very strong despite the lack of “Sweet Child of Mine,” perhaps the greatest Guitar Hero song of all time. Whoever was in charge of picking the tracklist and securing the rights did a fantastic job, even managing to score such undoubtedly high-priced licenses as Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box”. Many of the most notorious Guitar Hero tracks have made their way into this release, songs like Extreme’s “Play With Me,” The Reverend Horton Heat’s “Psychobilly Freakout,” and the one song that no Guitar Hero greatest hits compilation could possibly be without: DragonForce’s “Through the Fire and Flames.” They even managed to get the single best song from Guitar Hero: Aerosmith when they snagged “Back in the Saddle.”
So what’s wrong? Frankly, we’re at the point where it feels like Activision’s just showing off.
Activision contracted Beenox to grab Neversoft’s engine and this small pile of old games and remake them with the new engine. Activision paid Beenox to take these songs, replace the original game tracks with the newly-acquired masters from the original artists if necessary (and yes, all 48 of these tunes are now master tracks whether they were in the original or not—salve to the ears of those who couldn’t stomach, say, the new guitar solos in the covers of “Heart Shaped Box” and “Them Bones”), come up with vocal and drum tracks for the songs within the engine, and re-chart the guitar and bass parts of every song.
That’s right. While Beenox surely used the original charts as, I don’t know, “inspiration,” there is not a single guitar or bass chart here that hasn’t changed in some way from the original. In some cases, the changes make sense—that nigh-impenetrable intro to “Through the Fire and Flames” is now entirely tappable, no strums necessary, which makes sense given that it’s a keyboard part. In other cases, the changes make no sense whatsoever—the fact that you don’t strum at all through most of the first five minutes of “Free Bird” is silly to the point of insulting no matter what sound that guitar is making. Those who’ve played the original songs into the ground are going to have to spend time re-learning these tracks simply because they’ve changed in ways so inconsequential as to be just out of reach of autopilot. Allow yourself to drift into finger memory and you’ll fail out quicker than you can say “Raining Blood.”
The point is that it feels as though Activision told Beenox to change these songs just enough to justify a full $59.99 asking price, as a means of quieting those critics who would say that there’s no reason that Guitar Hero: Smash Hits shouldn’t simply have been downloadable content for Guitar Hero: World Tour. Unfortunately, the execution was sloppy and uneven, doing more to highlight the fact that downloadable content would have been the better destination.
The uneven quality of the game spreads into other areas as well—the career path seems like a good idea borrowed from Guitar Hero: Metallica at first as new venues are unlocked based on the number of stars the player has accumulated to that point. Unfortunately, career mode can only be beaten by completing every single song in the game, which seems to defeat the purpose of allowing the player to progress through the venues at a quicker pace. None of the downloadable content of Guitar Hero World Tour is compatible with Smash Hits, which is a shame, and the character creator, music studio, and online capabilities of the game don’t seem to have changed one bit, which is fine but again does not help the perception that the game probably should have been a package of downloadable content.
On a per-song basis, it’s true, buying Guitar Hero: Smash Hits is cheaper than downloading all of the songs that it offers. The problem is that the chances of the game’s buyers liking every one of these songs enough to have wanted to download it is pretty much nil, and the recharted guitar lines and added vocal and drum parts just don’t feel like enough to warrant a purchase. Activision made Guitar Hero: Smash Hits because it can. Nifty tracklist or not, do we really want to encourage that?